Today has not been an easy or straight forward decision for me.
At the moment the COVID case levels in Ipswich are around the national average but the key thing is the direction of travel and sadly it’s currently going in the wrong direction. Ipswich is one of only 18 local authority areas (out of 315) to have experienced an increase in the COVID case rate during the second national lockdown (quite a significant increase). The vast majority, 297, have experienced a decrease. Across the country as a whole during the second national lockdown the number of COVID cases has declined by almost a third.
Over the past couple of weeks the number of cases in Ipswich has gone up from 87.6 cases per 100,000 to 142.4 cases. However, the latest figures are up to the week ending 25 November. Tomorow I’m expecting the latest data to be published.
What does worry me is that there have been increases in the levels of COVID amongst the over 65s. The demographic group most vulnerable to the virus. The virus is currently highest in south west Ipswich, in particular Maidenhall/Stoke area. However, areas with elderly populations such as Broke Hall, Belstead Hills and Stoke Park have also witnessed increases and this does concern me. Ipswich Hospital currently has 90 COVID patients, this is the highest level since the pandemic started and is also a cause for concern. At the moment I’m glad the Hospital is still able to carry out most of its planned elective work, however a further concern of mine is that this could become more difficult if the number of COVID patients at the Hospital increases.
At a time when COVID cases have been rising in the way they have been in Ipswich I reluctantly accept the Government’s rationale for designating Suffolk as a tier 2 area and will therefore be voting with the Government tonight in favour of the new tiered system.
As someone who has previously expressed significant reservations about lockdowns and restrictions this hasn’t been an easy decision. Throughout this pandemic I’ve been keen to ensure that the hospitality sector in Ipswich gets the support it needs and is able to operate in as free a way as possible. It employs thousands of my constituents and to say its undergone a horrid time throughout the pandemic would be an understatement. It’s this concern for the hospitality sector that led to me vote against the 10pm curfew and to abstain on the second national lockdown vote.
The moment I found out that the plan was for Ipswich to be placed in tier 2 and what this would mean for the hospitality sector in Ipswich, I’ve been calling for further support to be provided to the sector. Today it was announced that wet-led pubs that do not serve “substantial meals” would receive an extra £1,000 per month in support, in addition to the existing £3,000 monthly cash grants for businesses. This does not go as far as I would have liked and it also doesn’t provide the further support for pubs and restaurants that do serve “substantial meals” that I would have liked to see. Though I do still believe that some further support may well be forthcoming over the coming weeks and I will continue to lobby for this.
I know that the Government has provided support through the furlough scheme, business rates and grants but asking tier 2 hospitality to operate at such a loss during arguably their
busiest month, in my view, requires even more support than what has been provided. I will continue to call for more support and voting with the Government today does not mean that I see the support package as it stands as adequate.
I also believe that clearer communications to the hospitality sector is a must and that both local and national government need to show greater flexibility when it comes to backing the sector during the difficult weeks ahead. For example, earlier this week the Greyhound pub announced that it had invested in outdoor heated pods to allow its customers to eat and drink outside and were then told by the Borough Council that they couldn’t be used as they didn’t meet regulations. This is not the sort of positive, flexible attitude I would have liked to see.
As many of you will know, Suffolk was very close to being placed in tier 1 last week and its a realistic prospect that when the two week review takes place later this month that we could find ourselves in tier 1 and that needs to be the goal. What is clear though is that if we’re going to get to tier 1 we need to see the negative trend in Ipswich be reversed.
Voting for restrictions on the lives of my constituents and businesses within my constituency is not the reason I became an MP and its not something that sits comfortably with me at all. I have also made clear that we need to balance the need to protect lives with the need to protect livelihoods also, this is the main reason why this decision is such a painful one to make.
However, with the case levels increasing in the way they have done over recent weeks I accept the Government’s argument that Suffolk should be in tier 2 and the new tiered approach to tackling the virus .
I’m glad that the national lockdown has come to an end and we are moving to a more localised approach. And although tier 2 restrictions are limiting in many ways, they will also allow the reopening of both essential and non-essential retail shops, beauty salons and hairdressers, as well as Portman Road stadium with up to 2,000 spectators. I am also very pleased that after recently co-signing a letter with 48 other MPs to the Prime Minister that Churches will be open over Christmas, regardless of where people live.
Going forward, the two week reviews of which areas are in each tier need to be proper reviews and in two weeks time I want to see different areas (including our own) dropping tiers if the circumstances allow. There is a sunset clause for early February meaning that we will have to vote again towards the end of next month.
Clearly what has changed compared to a month ago is the positive news regarding vaccines. For the first time in a long time it really does feel like there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel and this is what we need to strive towards.
I was pleased to be notified today that I have secured a special debate in the House of Commons Chamber on closures of the Orwell Bridge. It will take place next Thursday. This is the second time I will have led an adjournment debate since I was elected, the first one was orthopaedic services at Ipswich Hospital.
I hope this time holding the debate leads to a more positive outcome! I’m determined to keep this issue at the top of the agenda until Highways England implement the recommendations from their report and we know that having done so will mean that frequent closures of the bridge are a thing of the past. A Government Transport Minister will be present at the debate.
Used a question during the Spending Review today to welcome new measures like the £4 billion Levelling Up Fund for local infrastructure but also underline to the Chancellor how Ipswich must be very much part of the mix when it comes to this funding, alongside the Midlands and the North. These regions are often spoken about when it comes to levelling up the country but our town deserves to be a big part of this conversation as well.
I also welcomed the increase in the schools budget by £7.1 billion by 2022-23 compared to 2019-20 and the plans to rebuild 500 schools over the next decade are important but we have to be clear that children with SEND must get the benefits of this funding as well. And it was good that in response to me the Chancellor was able to confirm that £300 million has been allocated for new school places for children with SEND which is about 4 times as much than was provided to local authorities a year ago.
More high quality special school places is something I’ve been calling for since my election, and I’ve seen first-hand how these places make a huge difference to youngsters through my involvement as a Governor at the new Sir Bobby Robson school in Ipswich. A further special school on Woodbridge Road in Ipswich is due to open in 2022 for young people with speech and language difficulties which is highly positive. But that being said, I know there are still children in Ipswich who would benefit from a place at a special school but can’t get one and we must go further. And I’ll be looking very closely at how Ipswich can benefit from this increased funding for new places the Chancellor spoke about.
It is the case that special school places to cost more, but it’s the right thing to do and we’ll all benefit as a society if children with SEND are able to achieve their full potential.
Used an urgent question in Parliament today to raise the huge costs being faced by leaseholders at Cardinal Lofts by the Waterfront as a result of the dangerous cladding on their building. I’ve been in close contact with residents of Cardinal Lofts who’ve written to me about how they’ve essentially had a note slipped under their door by the management company telling them they now have to pay almost £400 per month per flat for a waking watch because of the fire risk. This is unacceptable when they weren’t responsible for putting this dangerous cladding up. Clearly the bill should be being slipped under the door of those who are responsible.
This is a huge amount of money and understandably it’s left leaseholders with a cloud of uncertainty hanging over them. Especially as some I’ve spoken to have said their property price has already plummeted and many are under real financial pressure as it is because of Covid-19.
This is a fundamental issue of fairness and I’ve been raising the similar cladding issues affecting St Francis Tower in Parliament since soon after I was elected. But since then more and more buildings in Ipswich have had issues. And I called today on the Housing Minister to meet with me to discuss how we can provide residents at Cardinal Lofts with the certainty leaseholders need and deserve. The Government needs to look very closely at whether we can stop leaseholders being caught in limbo by providing the funding for cladding replacement up front, and pursuing the freeholders responsible for putting it up afterwards.
I’ve also been working with leaseholders at Cardinal Lofts to submit written questions asking the Government to look at direct support for leaseholders with the cost of waking watches and other interim fire safety measures. The Government’s £1 billion Fire Safety Fund does help with cladding replacement costs (although I think it should go further) but it doesn’t cover incidental costs like waking watches before the cladding is removed.
I have meetings scheduled this week with Cardinal Lofts’ management company where I will raise the impersonal way residents have been contacted about these bills they face. And after my question today I’ll also be meeting with the Housing Minister again. I also hope to meet directly some of the leaseholders at Cardinal Lofts who’ve written in to me very shortly.
Whether it’s meetings, questions in Parliament like today, written questions or sending letters directly to Ministers, I’ll use every tool at my disposal to make sure leaseholders don’t have this cloud of uncertainty hanging over them for any longer.